Let’s not judge Taylor and Matty – rebound relationships aren’t always doomed
Flashback to my mistakes, my rebounds, my earthquakes,” Taylor Swift once wrote, the pages of her rhyming dictionary presumably tear-streaked and frayed beyond repair. The whiff of regret is palpable. Indeed, rebound relationships are almost always conceptually framed in the past tense: we rarely cast such language upon new romances in the moment – such as Swift’s current rumoured dalliance with The 1975’s Matty Healy – but back across the ones we’ve long since written off as interludes, a liminal space in the great love story of our lives.
Sure enough, vast swathes of social media are already convinced that Swift is on the rebound from her boyfriend of six years Joe Alwyn, and therefore making a terrible decision by rushing in too soon after a break-up. Now, there are plenty of reasons why dating Healy is probably a terrible idea – most notably his penchant for casually inflammatory remarks – but why are we all so committed to the idea that there must be a certain amount of time between relationships in order for them to be healthy? Whether it’s a pair of world-famous pop stars, or you and the poor soul who shared a passing resemblance to your ex across a sea of discount VK Blues, is it time we reconsidered the rebound?
Firstly, we perhaps need to recalibrate our idea of what a “successful” relationship looks like. We are culturally programmed to recognise longevity as one of its defining hallmarks – despite the world’s abundance of long, torturous marriages and glorious flings– but even if we play by those rules, there are plenty that defy the stereotype. Earlier this year, for example, Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor confessed to being each other’s rebounds when they first met – before getting married the following year, a union that lasted for 17 years (plus a reconciliation over lockdown) and produced two children. The rules, much like our fragile, idiot hearts, are there to be broken.
Rebounding also troubles the narrative that dating is fundamentally about hard work and compromise, a literal labour of love that rewards Protestant-ethic diligence and punishes frivolity. The English author Mary Russell Mitford lamented its capricious spirit as far back as the 1830s, in what may be the first recorded use of the term, when she declared that there was “nothing so easy as catching a heart on the rebound”. In the popular romantic narratives of the two centuries that have followed, the ease of falling into another’s arms became reduced to feckless promiscuity at worst and a temporary balm at best; or as Mitford probably didn’t refer to it, getting over one person by getting under another.
But is any of that really so terrible? Georgina Vass, a relationship and sex therapist from Brighton, makes the case that quick romantic turnarounds are simply meeting physical and emotional needs at a time when we need them most. “Rebound relationships have a bad rep for being unhealthy, but the research demonstrates otherwise,” she says. “One of the pillars of mental wellbeing is to maintain connection to others, because humans thrive when they have close relationships.”
In fact, the benefits of the rebound are even backed up by empirical research. “Scientific evidence supports [the idea] that rebound relationships are healthy and can positively impact our wellbeing in a variety of ways. The findings indicated that they may increase feelings of confidence and desirability, give more certainty about the dissolution of previous relationships, letting go of an unhealthy attachment to ex, and lead to self-expansion,” Vass explains. “What’s the downside?”
The downside isn’t necessarily people throwing themselves into new relationships or sexual partners, which Vass rightly celebrates, but attempting to fast-track the new encounter into an established partnership before you’ve really got to know each other. Beth, a 36-year-old social worker from Leicester, says she regrets trying to mould her rebound into “pretty much a carbon copy” of her then-recently ended marriage.
I know I was still mourning, and feeling emotionally and sexually excited about something new just felt like I was doing something wrong or perverse
“Within two weeks of getting together, we’d already booked an expensive foreign holiday together, and were making plans for our anniversary the following year,” she tells me over the phone. “It sounds ridiculous to say it now, but at the time all that intensity was such a welcome distraction from the misery of separating from the man I’d shared 12 years of my life with. And it really seemed like this could be the next 12.”
While her husband was still trying to reach out and iron out the details of their divorce, Beth admits in hindsight that her rebound was more of an escape from reality than forging a new future. Her new partner seemed wrapped up in the fantasy too – until he announced that he’d reconciled with his ex, barely eight weeks after they’d parted. “The new relationship was almost like a drug,” she says. “It made me feel invincible for a month or two when everything else was crumbling around me. And then that crumbled too, and it was basically a horrendous comedown from that high.”
Part of the danger of the rebound is the ultra-powerful surge of what experts call new relationship energy (NRE), along with its accompanying wave of oxytocin, the so-called “cuddle hormone”. This is a powerful natural drug in any context, as anyone who’s ever fallen head over heels in love can testify; coupled with the emotional pain and desire to escape reality that can accompany a major break-up, it’s no wonder it can feel powerfully addictive to some.
The pitfalls of being blinded by new love are well-documented across generations of pop songs and films, but it’s important to remember how wonderful it can be as well. For Chiara, a 45-year-old chef from Keynsham, the problem was complicated by the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the end of her last relationship: her partner of four months died suddenly after a short, unexpected illness. “I know lots of married couples lose their wife or husband after 60 years together or something, but I really felt like a huge part of my life had gone,” she says. “I was just completely lost.”
Chiara met Tara only a few weeks after her partner’s death, at a book club she had rejoined in a bid to get out of the house for an hour or two a week. There was an immediate spark and the pair quickly struck up an intense friendship, but both were painfully aware of the need to take things slowly. Chiara says one of the primary emotions early on was guilt: “I knew straight away that I fancied Tara, but I just kept feeling like, ‘Is this a betrayal?’ I know I was still mourning, and feeling emotionally and kind of sexually excited about something new just felt like I was doing something wrong or perverse.”
A lot of the physical intimacy came later, something Chiara somewhat regrets now – but she still classifies the relationship as an emotional rebound. “One of the biggest lessons I learnt was that you can hold multiple strong feelings at once, and it doesn’t mean one of them counts less,” she reflects. “I wish I’d kissed her sooner, to be honest, but I’m so grateful she gave me that space while I worked up the courage. Just holding hands with someone else felt huge.”
For all the wild declarations, heartache and lapsed judgement, everyone I speak to conveys a shared sentiment about rebounds in their own words: whether it lasted or fizzled out, it was what they needed at the time. Your friends might be rolling their eyes, your parents preparing more shoulders to cry on, your ex swearing it’ll never last. And indeed, maybe it won’t. Maybe Taylor and Matty will all end in tears too, destined to be fresh material for another song about falling for the bad ones. But don’t let that get in the way of your next great rebound.